Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]
I am grateful to you, Mr. Cummings, for chairing this important debate and to right hon. and hon. Members who have come to participate in it.
In July 2006, there was an all-party review on the important matter of services for children with disabilities, which I chaired and which reported to the Treasury and the then Department for Education and Skills. We were assisted hugely by the Every Disabled Child Matters consortium, and we took evidence from 308 parents, professionals, disabled people and organisations across the United Kingdom. I thank Members of Parliament, including Ministers, who regarded the matter as serious and made a contribution. My colleagues would expect me to mention the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who has responsibility for disability issues and was proactive throughout our discussions and since, and the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), who was then at the Department for Work and Pensions and attended several of our sessions and showed how interested he was, particularly in what parents and children told us.
During the summer recess of 2006, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble)—I am delighted that she is here this morning, and we all know that she showed wonderful leadership—and I visited families all over the United Kingdom who had children with disabilities. We visited them in our constituencies, and we went to places such as Greater Manchester and London boroughs such as Tower Hamlets.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He says that he had discussions with various groups throughout the UK. Did the Scottish National party play any part whatever in the review? It is rather unfortunate, given that there are a number of disabled people in Scotland, that SNP Members have failed yet again to turn up for such a debate.
My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. I shall simply say that we tried to approach the matter on a non-party basis, but I do not recall receiving a contribution from the SNP. I am worried about that, particularly in view of the implications for disabled children and their families in Scotland. I shall return to that, but I take on board what my hon. Friend says.
As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I visited many families during the summer recess before our report was produced, and I thank her again for everything that she did. I wish to mention the priorities that we addressed and assess progress. We saw some fine examples of good practice, and we witnessed incredible dedication on the part of professional staff, carers, voluntary bodies and, above all, parents, very often lone parents. I shall refer later to such a family in my constituency whom I visited over the weekend.
There was much that we welcomed, and many things that represented best practice, but we saw here in modern Britain a situation that cried out for more resources. Some 55 per cent. of disabled children were living in poverty; 76 per cent. of their parents suffered from stress and depression; and 51 per cent. of families experienced financial problems. No wonder my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families who, along with Lord Adonis, invited us to set up the review, considered it such a unique problem that it should be addressed in its own right, with a specific focus on disabled children and their families. Given that the population of disabled children has grown considerably, with more children being diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders and more having complex health needs—those increases have not been matched by increased funding—the interest of my right hon. Friend and others hardly came as a surprise.
Some things that we heard from parents were deeply moving, and at times trenchant. Frustration and even anger were writ large both in the oral evidence that we heard in the House and in the things we learned when we visited families. The children’s commissioner for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, said that
“the plight of children and families with disabilities is nothing short of a national scandal”.
That comment reflected the nature of the written and oral submissions that we received.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, who is held in the highest and warmest regard in the House for his dedication to, and work on, the subject, on the review. Did he take any evidence on the arbitrary setting of age limits, which prevents people with special educational needs and disabled people from going to social clubs in the evening? In Essex, they are deemed too old at 25, and are denied the right to enjoy social development and friendship. That is an arbitrary and stupid denial of human rights for administrative convenience.
That matter was raised, and rightly so. I hope that our recommendation that families should be involved in decisions that have an impact on them and their children will go a long way towards meeting the hon. Gentleman’s important concern.
In our report, published in October 2006, we made a plea for extra resources, along with accountability and transparency. I shall return in a moment to the priorities that we set out. We welcomed the response to our recommendations from the two Departments that invited us undertake the review. In May 2007, those Departments produced a document entitled, “Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families”, and what it said was positive. We did not get everything that we wanted, but importantly, the Government made a commitment to provide an additional £340 million from the comprehensive spending review, which covers three years, specifically for children with disabilities and their families, and for no other purpose.
I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on raising the subject. On accountability and the need to track additional resources, £34 million has been allocated to Scotland through the comprehensive spending review. Scottish families are anxious that, although the money will be tracked in England and Wales, that may not be the case in Scotland. There is deep worry that the money will be used to fill a black hole created by the Scottish Administration in their attempt to freeze council tax north of the border.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which I hope to address while remaining within the rules of the House. There is huge concern about the matter, and rightly so, for reasons that I shall give later. The allocation of funding was intended to cover the whole of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend raises concerns shared by many of our constituents, and I hope to return to the matter in the not-too-distant future.
Further to the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) has just raised, no one is suggesting that we in Westminster should decide exactly how the £34 million should be spent in Scotland. We want an assurance that it will be allocated to support children with disabilities and their families. We do not want it to disappear into another of the SNP Administration’s pet projects. For all we know, it could be used to defray the costs of chiselling “Scottish Executive” from the front of the Scottish Parliament building, on which hundreds of thousands of pounds were spent, and putting up “Scottish Government” instead. That is not where the money should go. It should help disabled children: that is what is it for, and that is what it should be spent on.
My hon. Friend is not only absolutely right, but he reflects the views of our constituents, which is one reason why I hope to return to this important matter.
Disabled children and their families throughout the United Kingdom should have the benefit of the reviews and the recommendations that arose from them. That applies to England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, of course, Scotland, as my hon. Friends have said. I shall examine what seems to have happened. In England, the aforementioned £340 million was supplemented with another £90 million in capital funding for short breaks, which the Department for Children, Schools and Families announced in its children’s plan in December 2007, taking the final total to an impressive £430 million. In view of some of the coverage in Scotland, I emphasise that that funding is not simply a matter for local government, important though that is: the national health service, too, is involved.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on raising this important subject. Does he share my concern that when the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who is First Minister, was specifically asked about it at First Minister’s Question Time in the Scottish Parliament last month, he merely referred to the concordat with Scottish local authorities and
“a commitment to progress to an extra 10,000 respite weeks per year”?—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 13 December 2007; c. 4429.]
Those 10,000 weeks include every area of social care, such as care for the elderly and disabled adults, as well as children. My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and I take it that he believes that that money can be used by the voluntary sector, as well as by the Government and local authorities.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I want to return to the important issues that she and other hon. Members have raised, but I was aware of what the First Minister said. I would have welcomed the presence of the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) here this morning, but I know that he may have other commitments. What he said, as my hon. Friend reminded us, was reflected in a letter that he wrote to Johann Lamont, MSP:
“The Concordat with COSLA includes a commitment to make progress towards delivering an extra 10,000 respite weeks per year.”
First, that is only a commitment, and nothing more. We expected more than that, and the report demanded it. Secondly, as my hon. Friend rightly said, many of those 10,000 respite weeks properly apply to adults. Our work and recommendations specifically concerned disabled children and their families, and from what the First Minister said, that need has not been met.
The right hon. Gentleman, who speaks on disability issues with an authority unrivalled in the House, referred to the role of the health service, as well as to local government’s important responsibilities. Will he take it from me that one group of very needy children and young people are those who require alternative or augmented technology to communicate and that a problem that bedevils that sector is the great network or panoply of agencies with which they or their carers must deal? We must crack that problem, so that the bureaucratic table tennis that denies them necessary equipment or delays its arrival is brought to an end.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) who, as always, speaks with enormous eloquence and personal knowledge of these important issues. It is immensely to his credit that he has made such a contribution in bringing these problems to the fore. I shall go on to cite our recommendations about the structure required to ensure that funding goes where it is intended to go, and I hope that that will meet some of the points that he properly made.
I add my congratulations to those already given to my right hon. Friend on his work for children with disabilities. Has he received, as I have, representations from parents of children with disabilities in Scotland who are extremely concerned and feel let down, having had their hopes raised, then apparently dashed? Is he aware that although the Scottish Executive have removed ring-fencing for many issues, they have retained some funds on the basis of bidding for certain priorities? Does he agree that children with disabilities, and care for those children, should certainly be a priority?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a point that has been made to me and, I am sure, to other Scottish Members of Parliament. Of course there is great anxiety about the matter. People want funding to go where it is intended to go, whatever mechanism is used. I shall return to that, but I assure my hon. Friend that the matter has been raised with me again and again. I can hardly believe that it has not been raised with our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament.
I am very much enjoying the debate. I apologise that my intervention is not about the Scottish National party or Scotland.
One of the outcomes of the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent review and our debate last year on my private Member’s Bill about children with disabilities was that the performance of local authorities and primary care trusts throughout England, and probably Scotland and Wales, was patchy in terms of provision. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on that, and has he seen anything in the welcome announcement of extra resources and follow-through that will address the situation? Is he hopeful that it will be addressed by what the Government are now doing?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has shown a deep and genuine interest in these issues over a long time. I acknowledge his point about the patchy approach, which applies in all sorts of areas, including lack of co-ordination between agencies, particularly in terms of delivery and consultation. That view is shared by those who were on the review.
The hon. Gentleman should not worry about his views on Scotland, because I think that they will be adequately expressed during the debate, but I thank him for his interest.
I return to the analysis that I was trying to make about what has happened in the constituent parts of the United Kingdom since the additional funding was announced. The Department of Health, consistent with our recommendations, has made its contribution, too. Disabled children are the new priority for primary care trusts in the new NHS operating framework and they have new baseline funding to improve services. The Every Disabled Child Matters consortium wants a specific amount identified for each primary care trust to ensure transparency and accountability to local families. I wholeheartedly agree with that point.
In Wales and Northern Ireland, discussions are ongoing, but positive indications have been made, especially with regard to child poverty and early intervention, with an already confirmed extra £1 million for that purpose in Wales. However, to turn to the issue that my hon. Friends have been raising, I regret to say that in Scotland there is huge concern about the destination of the £34 million to which Scotland is entitled under the Barnett formula. All parties acknowledge that the money has come to Scotland thanks to the reviews, but now it seems that it might not be spent on the purpose for which it was clearly intended. Its purpose is for disabled children and their families. Families across the UK contributed to our thinking. It would be a tragedy if only the views of the people of Scotland—Scotland alone—were ignored. Those from Scotland who gave evidence to us could feel that their views had been apparently dismissed. Lest it be thought that some of us are being over-parochial, we are simply representing our constituents, who feel passionately, as we all do.
As I always try to be objective in these matters, I turn now to the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), who, in fairness, was the man largely responsible for everything that took place. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, as he now is, said in the main Chamber on 11 December:
“When we conducted our review of the life chances of disabled children and their families, and allocated extra money for respite care and other services, we consulted across the country. Welsh and Scottish MPs were active in those consultations...There was widespread expectation that the money would be spent not only in England but elsewhere, and that the Barnett consequentials would be spent on disabled children in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is happening in Wales but, to my knowledge, it has not happened in Scotland, where the funds have been diverted to cut council tax. I am very disappointed indeed that the needs of disabled children and their families are not a priority for the Scottish Executive.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 174.]
It is for hon. Members to make a judgment about the views of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has done so much in this field. However, I have to say that if representations to me from Scotland show, as I believe they do, the strong views of the Scottish people—particularly those who speak for disabled families and their children—what my right hon. Friend said in the House reflects those strong views.
There are people who argue that ring-fencing is inappropriate—it is important that I come to that issue at this point—and they are entitled to their view. As an ex-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I know where they are coming from. However, that need not be the issue. In the review that I chaired, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, we offered options in terms of accountability. We said, in an important part of our review:
“If Government is not persuaded to ring fence additional resources for disabled children (and their families) released through the comprehensive spending review, Ministers must be able to convince parents and professionals that alternative mechanisms exist to ensure that the resources reach the children who need them.”
That is all we ask. In Scotland, as elsewhere, that is what we want. Disabled children and their families deserve no less. Why? We gave the reasons in the priorities that we set, which apparently persuaded the Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that any Executive or Government with control of those funds must properly, openly and transparently account for how they have spent them and report to their respective Parliaments—or to the Assembly in Wales—on how the money has been spent, so that the families of disabled children can clearly see where the money has been spent and what the benefit of the expenditure has been?
I agree entirely. If I may say so and still remain in order, Mr. Cummings, in the all-party spirit in which we approached the review, I want to acknowledge the all-party support that I received when I was promoting the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006, including support from the First Minister, who was one of the sponsors. Can we honestly say that we want more transparency in terms of developing countries and the money allocated to them, but that we will not offer transparency for the £34 million allocated for the purposes that we are debating?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way to me again.
There may be satisfactory alternatives in this context to ring-fenced budgets, although I have not encountered them. The compelling argument for ring-fencing in this field of policy is that although parents of children with disabilities are, thankfully, gradually becoming more demanding, vociferous and articulate, the reality remains that, in political terms, they are often not that powerful; therefore, we need a discipline that will hold in check the ambitions and the sometimes misguided priorities that would otherwise obtain in local authorities of whichever stripe.
Yet again the hon. Gentleman puts it perfectly. When I supported devolution, I took the view that all democratically elected institutions should be accountable not just to the powerful, but also to those who experience poverty. His argument is correct.
In summary, the priorities we set in our original review, which were applicable to the whole of the United Kingdom, were as follows: early intervention, with swift diagnosis and recognition of the child’s needs; family support, such as vital short breaks; transition care, which is the period when a disabled person leaves the education system and often enters a confusing world; and additional funding to promote parent participation in improving services.
Last week, in the excellent debate on fuel poverty in this Chamber secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), I gave the information that
“two thirds of families with disabled children struggle to pay their fuel bills each winter. One family of every 10 families with disabled children has had its gas and electricity supply cut off.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 8 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 11WH.]
One of our report’s recommendations, which was not taken up by the “Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families” review, was to extend the winter fuel payment to families with disabled children. That payment would help them immensely, especially with the recently announced increases in fuel prices.
Another concern addressed by the report was the worrying lack of data. When allocating funding, one must know the extent of a problem to act appropriately. I know that the “Aiming high” review referred to data collection, so I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on where we are now in that respect. Although we are talking about statistics—where it is important that we have the correct information—all the discussion, and all the reports that have been written, fundamentally deal with people. In common with other Members, I realise that we are dealing with people with very specific needs.
Like other Members, I regularly visit people in my constituency, as I did last weekend. I am watching the clock carefully because I know that others want to speak, but I want to share with Members some of the discussions that I had with two admirable families. Although they acknowledged that they were receiving excellent support from the local social work department, they indicated that there were problems, reflected in the problems that we identified in our report and that appeared in the Government’s response.
The first family I visited was the Davidson family. Leonie Davidson, a charming young woman, is 17. She has been diagnosed with Hallervorden-Spatz disease, which is a genetic, degenerative condition. Her mum, Angela, is an admirable woman and a lone parent. Leonie has a brother, Barney, who is nine. Angela takes the view that direct payments are most suited to her family’s needs. In fact, she said that they were fabulous and were good for her family. She felt, and I think that she was right, that she was entitled to continue working as a management accountant, and that with proper support and resources there was no reason why she could not exercise the right choices for her family. I think we would all endorse that.
When local authorities have the resources to agree to direct payments, it means that there is access to benefits from the independent living fund, which is very important to Angela and her family. Although she had to spend £3,000 topping up her grant, what was important to her was the right to choose and the right to recognise her daughter, Leonie, as a person in her own right.
I also want to talk about the family of 16-year-old Stephen Campbell. Stephen has been diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis. A stroke at 12 worsened his condition. His parents are Catherine and Alex, and he has an 11-year-old brother, David. Catherine has experienced epilepsy for most of her life. Although the family acknowledge the work and contribution of North Lanarkshire social work department, there is a problem. Having gone through the education system, Stephen is in need of some form of transitional arrangement and although there is an excellent centre for respite care—Ferrie house—Stephen is unfortunately not able to go there because the local authority, which I am not criticising, has decided that the resources will not be available until he reaches the age of 18. Other young people go to the centre, which is only two miles from where Stephen lives, but he has to travel 12 miles a day.
There is an impact on Stephen’s respite care, too. His parents have seven days’ respite care a year from the centre that he currently attends; Ferrie house would provide 14 days. Such things are very important to people who are trying to cope in the circumstances that I have described.
I do not want to dwell on those cases too much because I am watching the clock, but I am delighted at the response from right hon. and hon. Members because I am describing what people have to cope with day in, day out. I want to thank both families for the help that they gave me. In the argument about resources, they acknowledged that much has been done by the Government, by the devolved Government and local government, but there is no doubt that additional resources would be of assistance to them.
Before the right hon. Gentleman finishes, will he allow me to ride one of my little hobby horses? He is right to highlight the existence of a whole spectrum of need, and the fact that parents and carers probably know best how to meet it. Does he share the view that some children are best served by mainstream schools and some are well cared for in the wonderful special learning difficulties schools? However, some children are well cared for in moderate learning difficulties schools, which seem to be under threat of closure in certain local authorities. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that we should maintain those wonderful, caring schools, so that parents can have a choice if their children fit into that particular category?
I agree. Special needs education should be appropriate to the child, because their interests are paramount. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, who has been immensely helpful in the debate, reminds me that time is going on. I am grateful for her forbearance and that of all right hon. and hon. Members. Although there is much more that I would like to say, I will conclude with just a couple of points.
In both reviews we have presented the picture, as we see it, of the problems for disabled children and their families throughout Britain. We listened to the evidence and to what people had to say. We genuinely tried to respond to profoundly important matters such as early intervention, transition and families’ involvement in decision making. Therefore, we believe that it is right that monitoring should take place.
The argument about funding will go on. My hon. Friend the Minister will understand that people will still come back and rightly ask for more, but he is entitled to ensure that money is spent in the right area. If this debate helps us to achieve that purpose, it will have been worth while.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. First, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for securing this debate. As he mentioned in his remarks, he and the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) have chaired a series of parliamentary hearings for the Secretary of State when he was at the Treasury. Those hearings and the efforts of the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign and of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), whose private Member’s Bill helped to raise this issue to prominence, secured the funding that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) is chairing another review for the Government. If the Government want to be even-handed about it, I hope that my hon. Friend’s review is successful in securing an equivalent amount of funding for the area of policy that he is examining. We will know the results of that in due course.
Given the significant contribution from Scottish Members and the issues that they raised, it is worth mentioning that this issue and, indeed, health policy have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The issues that they raised are perfectly reasonable, but frankly, they are issues to be debated in the Scottish Parliament, because they are devolved—a policy that the Labour party supported and implemented—and this Parliament has no control over them. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that extra funding has been allocated under the Barnett formula, but it is up to Members of the Scottish Parliament, who are accountable to their constituents on these issues, to have the debate. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have no say over these policy areas in Scotland as a result of the devolution settlement implemented by the Government whom they support.
Opposition Members welcome the Government’s funding for short breaks, which resulted from the inquiry that the right hon. Gentleman held and the other campaigning work that took place. Just this week—I think that he drew attention to this in his speech—the Government reannounced the funding, together with the breakdown by local authorities, spread over the next three years. I was pleased to note that my local authority, Gloucestershire, is one of the pathfinder authorities and has been allocated the money slightly earlier in the process. We will receive a more significant share of funding in the early part of those three years as some significant plans are rolled out.
I have spoken to one of my colleagues, Councillor Jackie Hall, the cabinet member for children’s services on the county council, who confirmed to me that she and her colleagues are working closely with parents to develop provision that will suit their needs, rather than considering what would suit the local authority. I am very pleased that they have taken that approach. It is very much in the spirit of the inquiry chaired by the right hon. Gentleman. They are considering what parents need to support their families. One matter that Gloucestershire is examining is the extent to which its plans can include an element of choice, so that families can choose, from a range of options, the support and short breaks that best suit their family structure.
It would be helpful if the Minister could comment on the following issue. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the settlement announced in the comprehensive spending review is for the three-year period. I have concerns about this. The funding going to Gloucestershire rolls forward in 2009-10 and 2010-11 at just under £1.6 million a year. The concern that families will have is that if the county council puts together a package of short breaks that they find incredibly valuable and that helps to keep families together and support them, what will happen after the three-year period?
Most local authorities—this came out from the comments about Scotland—are cash-strapped. My local authority, particularly due to the severe flooding that we had last year and, sadly, the flooding that we may be experiencing this week, is very cash-strapped. It had to deal with a big expense last year as a result of flooding. We do not want the funding from the Government to cease after the three years and local authorities throughout the country simply to be unable to continue funding the package. There would be no crueller measure than to have rolled out the package of short breaks for families, have those families come to depend on those breaks and get used to them, and then snatch them away simply because there is no funding. Therefore, it would be helpful if the Minister could say what the Government’s thoughts are about rolling the funding into a more permanent settlement for local authorities, so that they can have confidence.
Pathfinder authorities are receiving the money fairly early on, but the situation is different for many other authorities. If we look at the totals—obviously, these are figures for England—we see that the funding is very weighted towards the back end of the process, with £15 million in the 2008-09 financial year, £76 million the following year and £178 million in the final year of the process. Therefore, a number of local authorities will only just have rolled out their programmes and there will be no confidence that they will continue. It is important to give some guidance about what the Government thought would happen subsequently.
Given that the bulk of the money is rolled out throughout the country in years 2 and 3, it would be helpful to know what process the Department will follow in using the experience of the pathfinder authorities to roll out best practice to other authorities. In relation to the money being spent in the first year, we can see what works. Clearly, it would not be appropriate centrally to direct local authorities on how to spend the money, but it would be helpful to ensure that authorities receiving the bulk of their funding in years 2 and 3 have good access to the lessons of what has worked in the pathfinder authorities. Surely that is one purpose of a pathfinder programme: to spend the money better in the subsequent years of the programme.
The final point on the funding that the Government have agreed is that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who is responsible for care services, committed that the money that would come from the Department of Health would match what was coming from this Minister’s Department. I did not find the statement terribly transparent. The Health Minister said:
“Substantial new growth funding has been included in PCT allocations…to enable them to work with local authorities to…increase the range and number of short breaks.”
This Minister will know that all PCTs in England were this year given a 5 per cent. increase in their funding. I have not been able to disentangle how much extra funding was given to PCTs to account for that pledge to match the funding for short breaks. Given that all PCTs were given a flat increase, it would be interesting to know whether the money for short breaks in the health funding has been equally distributed throughout the country, or whether it matches the money that has gone to local authorities.
Can we assume in Gloucestershire that the extra money that Gloucestershire PCT will have received in its funding settlement will match the £500,000, £1.5 million and £1.5 million that the county council receives in those three years? I know that those who run Gloucestershire PCT would find it very helpful to know what extra amount of money it has been given to fund those essential services.
I will try to keep my remarks brief so that the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood has an opportunity to speak before those on the Front Benches, but I want to say a few words about autism. The ten-minute Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) will be presented today after Prime Minister’s questions. That would make provision for the education and training of children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and for a number of connected measures. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to present the Bill to the House.
I was fortunate just yesterday to visit TreeHouse—both the trust and the school—in north London. They are experts at dealing with autism. Indeed, I am very pleased with their slogan “Ambitious about Autism”, which is about ensuring that children who are on the autistic spectrum are successful. That school was founded by parents of children with autism, who found that provision was lacking, and it has been very successful. It has an evidence-based process. It uses applied behaviour analysis and was the first school in the UK to use such analysis to teach children with autism. It has a very good evidence base of success.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet not only the staff of both trust and school but a number of parents and to listen to them talk about their experience. I mention that because there is very good evidence on the issue from the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, funded by the Shirley Foundation. The evidence was gathered in the late 1990s and has recently been updated. It relates to the costs associated with health and social care support for people on the autistic spectrum. Apart from the significant number of people on the spectrum—433,000 adults and 107,000 children; obviously, children are the focus of this debate—the estimate made by the organisation is that the lifetime cost for someone with an autistic spectrum disorder and a learning disability is £4.7 million. It is £2.9 million for someone with a high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder. For children, if they are living in residential care or are in a foster placement, the annual costs can range from £16,000 to £62,000. The costs are considerably lower if they live at home.
I mention that because there is good evidence, particularly with autism, that early interventions are extremely valuable. Given the lifetime cost, the tragedy that I discovered when listening to two of the parents yesterday was, first, the delay that they experienced in getting a diagnosis and, secondly, the battle that they had with the local authority to get appropriate funding. Often, parents must go all the way through to a tribunal, which means that the child will not get the appropriate support in the critical early years unless the parents themselves can provide it. Obviously, that option is available only to those parents who have the appropriate resources. By not investing early, society must bare the significant costs through the lifetime of the child. Will the Minister say what work the Government are doing on lifetime costs and the extent to which early interventions make sense not only from a financial perspective, but from a human and family perspective, even if they are quite expensive?
I shall make only one more brief point on direct payments having seen your signal, Mr. Cummings, to keep an eye on the clock. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned direct payments. Many disabled people and their families welcomed the payments because they put control in their hands. The payments mean that people do not have to go to a local authority to receive services; rather, the people themselves control the services and can fit them around their individual experience. Will the Minister comment on the extent to which direct payments are being taken up? In a written answer on 7 January, the Minister for Schools and Learners said:
“The most recent data available are for 31 March 2006, and show that 649 children and 4,170 carers were receiving these payments”.—[Official Report, 7 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 205W.]
Given the scale of the number of people whom we know are receiving social care, those are small numbers. It would be helpful to know what the Government are planning to do to make direct payments more easily accessible, not only for the parents and carers of disabled children but, in due course, to those disabled young people themselves, to give them power and control over their own lives.
My special thanks go to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for securing this important debate. As we heard in his eloquent introduction, he cares passionately about the issue and, from the attendance, we can see that many other colleagues care likewise.
As my right hon. Friend said in his introduction, we were honoured to be invited by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and our noble Friend Lord Adonis to lead what were groundbreaking and unique parliamentary hearings on the concerns of families with children with disability. In so doing, we heard some heart-rending testimony from the families and from professionals who cared for the children. Interestingly, in the body of the report produced after those hearings, there is polling evidence that, unusually, the views of service recipients match those of service deliverers. Both families and social care professionals, and some health professionals, felt that an inadequate service was being delivered.
We knew that something needed to be done. We argued for additional resources but, more importantly in a way, we argued for administrative changes and changes of attitude toward children with disability. Until we change society’s attitudes and those of the professionals who support families, we will not effect change. Simply putting money into the system will not work unless it is backed by changes in procedures and attitudes.
If nothing else, the report provided an evidence base on which the Government could act—I was pleased by their response—but we also put the needs of children with disability on centre stage in Parliament. The charities that supported the hearings came together to set up the consortium whose Every Disabled Child Matters campaign is going out into the country. No Member of Parliament is unaware of that, and local authorities and health authorities know about it—everybody in the country knows of the campaign. We put the issue on the top of the agenda.
We raised many hopes and expectations, so it was rewarding to get the cheque at the end of the day, by which I mean that the Government allocated money to short breaks. One of the key matters identified in our report was that having some respite was the difference between families who coped and those who collapsed. In giving £340 million to short breaks, the Government recognised that they are a key and essential part of the needs of families with disabilities.
I wish to talk about some of the key issues on which we need to see progress that the report identified, but I first wish to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). He made some serious and important remarks, and I share many of his views, especially on the pilot. We need assurance that the Government learn from the pilots that they set up, and that they ensure their sustainability. Our inquiry identified good practice in the early support pilots, especially on the development of a key worker system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and the hon. Gentleman are concerned about early intervention, but, actually, improvements on that took place through the early support programme. Under the programme, local government works with health services in a much more co-ordinated manner, so that when a child with complex needs is born, there is early intervention and a key worker to support the family. A wide variety of professionals may still be involved, but instead of the parents having to cope with those different professionals, they can ring up just one person, who then sorts out and advises the professionals before the key meetings that the families must attend to determine their child’s future.
We recommended that lessons needed to be learned from the early support pilots and the development of key workers. In fact, we wanted key workers to be part of the system throughout a child’s life, rather than only in those early years. That is not to say that every family needs a key worker—clearly, they do not. Some children do not need a key worker, but those with complex, multiple needs may need one. We need to ensure that advice is available. If I can make one plea to the Minister this morning, it is that we ensure that the changes that the Government are introducing are properly embedded in the system and that the availability of financial resources and the administrative changes are sustainable.
Many such changes are taking place, especially in local government, and they offer huge opportunities. The development of children’s trusts and the coming together of local authority children’s departments with health professionals and other statutory and voluntary agencies—multi-disciplinary working—offers the way forward for providing a much simpler system for parents to work their way through. We need to ensure that that happens.
I gave my apologies this morning to the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, but I want briefly to refer to the Committee’s work. We have undertaken an inquiry into child poverty and social mobility. We have not yet produced a report, but we heard a huge amount of evidence about the poverty suffered by families that have children with disability.
I know that it is not part of the Minister’s remit, but I hope that when our report is published he will consider it, working with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to see what can be done to support those families, especially the changes proposed to the Government’s welfare to work programme that will require lone parents to move from income support to jobseeker’s allowance when their children reach the age of 10, and then at seven. For many families who have disabled children, that is not practical, because child care and other support is not available.
I know that the Department for Children, Schools and Families, under the excellent Childcare Act 2006, is developing and enhancing child care provision. The legislation contains a specific reference to children with disability. However, the Government have a lot of balls up in the air. I want to ensure that they are all caught in the right sequence. It is a juggling act. The Minister must ensure that, as changes are made in one area, they do not have an adverse impact on other areas and that all the improvements come into place at the same time to ensure that families, especially families with children with disability, can benefit from them.
I conclude with a positive statement. I had intended to talk a little more about the Select Committee report and other outstanding issues, but I want to emphasise the fact that our responsibility is to ensure one thing. Although families with children with disability can suffer problems, and we can help them overcome those problems, we should remember that a child with disability can also bring great joy to the family. When I visit special schools—I usually visit mainstream schools—I have huge fun with the children, because they are often the ones to ask the most difficult questions. I was intrigued by a report recently published by the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign. Parents were asked what they wanted, and parents obviously wanted more support. Disabled children were then asked what they wanted—more fun things to do was the answer. They are children. They may have a disability, but we must not forget that they are children. Let us make sure that they have more fun things to do, so that they can enjoy their childhood, as should all children. I hope that the Minister will consider what we have said about the needs of the parents and the families, but it is the needs of the child that should come first. They want to be children, and to be treated as children.
I am delighted to be able to sum up on behalf of the Liberal Democrats; I have just been appointed the party’s disability spokesman, and this is my first debate in post.
I thank the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for triggering the debate and for his well-thought-out introduction. I also thank the hon. Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for their excellent contributions.
I have had many discussions over the years with the right hon. Gentleman about international development issues, and I suspect that we might have a few more in the years to come about disability issues. We know that both subjects affect the lives of the most vulnerable children, in this country and elsewhere in the world. After many years on my party’s international development team, I have witnessed at first hand children suffering from the most horrendous disabilities—some man-made, others easily avoided. Before I consider the issue closer to home, I would like to say a few words about the wider problem.
We must not forget the millions of children who will never have access to the services that we aspire to in this country. I think of those young children whom I met in Sierra Leone with the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), children whose limbs had been macheted off deliberately to disable them and to burden their families. I think also of others who have lost their sight because of river blindness, despite the fact that the annual cost of protecting one person against that disease is only 12p.
Although we are discussing services for children with disabilities in this country, we must continue to press for improvements for those living in the developing world, who can only dream of the level of service that we have here at present—children whose lives are already difficult enough. However, there is much to be done, and many issues need to be addressed here at home.
This should not be a party political issue, as the welfare and provision of services for children with disabilities is something that no party would not wish to improve. I look forward to working with the Minister, and with the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, in a constructive way. Indeed, it was at Capability Scotland in my constituency that the leader of the Conservative party launched a major statement on his party’s commitment to the issue late in 2006. I have seen at first hand the excellent work done by that organisation—for the avoidance of doubt, I mean Capability Scotland—as it works with children and parents to bring out the potential of those children receiving its support.
Much good work is being done by many excellent organisations throughout the country. However, when the services for disabled children and their families are described as a national scandal, as they were by the Children’s Commissioner for England, something is clearly wrong, and no stone should be left unturned in the search for ways to improve those services. I will not repeat the concerns raised on five or six occasions about the situation in Scotland; I simply ask the Minister and his colleague to make representations to the Secretary of State for Scotland to stress the point to the First Minister at the earliest possible opportunity. It is a serious concern north of the border.
The scale of the problem is huge, and the numbers of children requiring support services is growing. In the United Kingdom, there are more than half a million disabled children under the age of 16; 98 per cent. of disabled children live at home and are supported by their families; and 55 per cent. of disabled children grow up in, or at the margins of, poverty. Disabled children are 13 times more likely to be excluded from school. More recently, we have become much more aware of those who are bullied at school, and the support they need to cope—and to stop it happening in the first place.
Working with a disabled child can not only be exhausting: it can also be the most rewarding experience imaginable. I pay tribute to the many often unsung heroes in that field—the parents and the workers who make the difference. Often, they provide the most basic service, but it can transform a life, providing the love and care that develops the dignity that should be experienced by us all, and not only by the able-bodied.
The support offered should say that we are all equal, even if moving towards that will be a real struggle for many. Sometimes that struggle will be physical, at others emotional, and it can also be a financial struggle. The facts are stark. The income of families with disabled children is 23 per cent. below the UK average, yet it costs up to three times as much to raise a disabled child as it does to raise a child without disabilities. Families with disabled children spend approximately 10 times as much on loan repayments a week compared with the UK average. Caring for a disabled child can cause many other problems; stress, depression and lack of sleep are commonly experienced by parents and carers.
Accessing the support available from Departments—the benefits, the local authority services and negotiating the maze of paperwork and bureaucracy involved—is hard enough for most people, but for those with a disabled child the problems multiply. Half of the appeals against disability living allowance awards are upheld, which shows how many mistakes are made. That is why some time ago I produced a special needs pack for those of my constituents who are parents of children with disabilities. It was intended to make it as simple as possible to access everything to which they were entitled to in my constituency.
I therefore urge the Minister and the Minister with responsibility for disabled people to develop such a pack, making it available to all mothers who have the experience of giving birth to a disabled child. From day one, they should have the support to which they are entitled, rather than finding out, sometimes years after the child is born, that they have been unaware of help that could have changed their lives.
For disabled children to have a future, many will require work when they become adults. It is therefore a real concern that although many disabled adults are ready, able and willing to work, half of them are not in employment. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government will do to work with groups, organisations, business and the community to ensure that disabled children have a future to look forward to—one in which many of them can play a full part and which includes having access to a reasonable income that they have earned.
In a Mencap survey, eight out of 10 families with severely disabled children described themselves as being at breaking point. Improving the situation for parents with disabled children must therefore be a priority, so I was delighted when the children’s plan, which was mentioned earlier, was published. Crucially, it was published alongside a commitment to make an extra £90 million available to help local authorities provide accessible short breaks. Like other hon. Members, I was encouraged by the Prime Minister’s words about carers early last week, and I would appreciate any indication from the Minister as to the likely impact on those caring for children with disabilities.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families described the aiming high commitments as a down payment on change. Today’s debate has highlighted some of the changes that I and others would like to see, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we can work together to deliver them.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), although it is hardly necessary to do so, because his reputation on this issue goes before him. I congratulate him not only on securing the debate, but on all the work that he and the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) have done, which he and other hon. Members mentioned.
This has been a good debate, and we have had some interesting and well-informed contributions, although hon. Members may be forgiven for thinking that they had stumbled into a debate not only about services for children with disabilities, but about services for children with disabilities in Scotland and the responsibilities of the Scottish Administration under the leadership of the Scottish National party and its First Minister, the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who is turning out to be a bit of a stinker on disability issues, allegedly.
Notwithstanding that, there have been some interesting contributions from south of the border. There is a panoply of talent, not least among my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who speaks on disability issues for the Conservative party. I was glad that he mentioned the way in which his local council is working with parents to devise a service that they want and need, rather that one that it is convenient for the council to provide. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who has just left the Chamber, has a long-standing interest in this issue, and I am glad that he was here for most of the debate. We look forward to the responses to the review that he is undertaking. The work of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) on this issue is also well known, and he made a good point about the patchy provision—the postcode lottery—that often characterises services for children with disabilities. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood made an important point about juggling balls—whatever those balls might be. She mentioned the short breaks scheme, which is very important, and we welcome the resources that the Government have provided for it. As she said, it can make the difference between families with disabled children coping or collapsing, and the scheme’s sustainability is crucial, as my hon. Friends, too, noted. As I said, we have had some excellent contributions.
This is an important subject. There are 777,000 disabled children in this country, which is about 7 per cent. of the child population. Thanks to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and other hon. Members, the issue has moved up the political agenda. I certainly applaud and endorse the sentiment and commitment that the Government have shown in providing extra resources and in responding to the review led by the right hon. Gentleman with the measures in “Aiming high”. It behoves us to applaud families and carers of children with disabilities for their enormous dedication and the enormous amount of work that they do. Without them, the job of the state would be enormously greater and more expensive for us all.
In the few minutes that I have, I want to touch on a number of issues, including the important issue of respite care. The Council for Disabled Children has noted that the cost of providing 100,000 children with respite care is equivalent to the cost of providing residential care for 1,000 children. Only one in 13 families of disabled children benefit from any kind of support service. It is a false economy not to provide families with preventive support services that could make the difference between coping and collapsing, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood said.
We should make the job of families easier, not put obstacles in their way, but the benefits system remains too complicated for people with disabled children. The Child Poverty Action Group has made several recommendations, and noted that the lack of information about the disability living allowance
“prevents families getting the support they need to care for their child.”
It adds that we need a
“holistic, family-friendly, co-ordinated approach to service delivery”.
It says that the benefit system must be improved and that the administration must be simplified. Finally, it says that there must be more information and that we must use national and local statistics. We know the exact extent of the problem, and Conservative Members want a single assessment process, so that we can improve access to the wide variety of benefits and social, health, education and respite services that are available.
Several hon. Members mentioned the link between disability and poverty, and I do not intend to repeat the figures. However, an enormous number of families live in unbearable poverty because they have to care for family members. Half of those families have no savings. Families of children with disabilities suffer major discrimination in the education system, too, and children with disabilities are more than twice as likely as able-bodied children to have no qualifications. They are at least twice as likely to be bullied in school and eight times as likely to be excluded. As for the benefits system, 85 per cent. of parents of disabled children want to work full-time or part-time, but despite those aspirations, only 16 per cent. of mothers of disabled children are in work, compared with more than 60 per cent. of all mothers.
Notwithstanding the Childcare Act 2006—I served on the Committee that considered that measure—provisions and care for disabled children still do not go far enough. The Act did not do enough to improve the quality and appropriateness of the services available to families with disabled children, so more needs to be done on that. The problem is the patchiness or the postcode lottery mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham will deal in his review with the statementing system, which is still not fair or independent enough. Too many parents have to battle to get a diagnosis and an assessment, often at great personal expense to themselves and great financial expense to the local authority they are battling against. Once they have a ruling in their favour, they have to battle yet further to get the support services to go with it. The system is a constant battle for too many people, and we should give those most in need as much help as possible by removing those hurdles.
I want to touch on two other issues. We have spoken a lot about physical disabilities, but we must not forget learning and communication disabilities. I CAN is a leading charity in that field: I pay tribute to its excellent work and welcome its input into the review by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. I CAN notes:
“One in ten children…in the UK has communication problems that require specialist help. This represents approximately three children in every classroom…In some parts of the UK as many as 50 per cent. of five year olds are arriving at school without the speech and language they need to fully participate and achieve their potential at school. This figure rises to 80 per cent. in areas of high unemployment and poor housing.”
It is therefore a false economy not to intervene early to ensure that children have the communication skills to enable them fully to take advantage of the education system and to integrate into it. I CAN goes on to say:
“46.3 per cent. of children with a statement of SEN have identified speech, language and/or communication difficulties…Between 50 per cent. and 90 per cent. of people with learning disabilities have communication difficulties”.
I CAN raises a few questions, which I want to leave with the Minister. First, it wants to know whether the children’s plan will ensure that children’s communication needs are given high priority. It notes that joint working, supporting parents and early intervention are important and it wants to know what the Government are doing to improve services for children with a communication disability. It also asks:
“Has the Minister made any assessment as to how effectively Local Authorities and PCTs are able to commission services for children with speech and language difficulties and what are...the principles of effective commissioning in this area?”
Many hon. Members would recognise from surgery cases a vicious triangle of passing the buck between the education authority, the PCT and perhaps children’s services and social services. The question of who should pick up the problem stems from the difficulty of assessing whether the child has a physical or a learning disability. Finally, Whizz-Kidz, a charity that does excellent work on child disability issues—it is particularly concerned with mobility and the 70,000 disabled children in the UK who need a wheelchair—has pointed out that there is an enormous postcode lottery for access to the specialised wheelchair provision on which many children rely. It has spent £2 million of charitable money on providing support services. I hope that the Minister will, in the short time available, provide some words of comfort about how seriously the Government take the problem of specialised wheelchair provision, particularly for the many disabled children throughout the country. Perhaps he would like to write to me in detail about that, because he has only 10 minutes in which to respond to the debate.
I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for allowing me at least some time to respond to this important debate. Like other hon. Members, I offer my thanks and congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), for his work and commitment over the years in this important area and the passion and dedication with which he pursues the matters in question. Contributions to the debate were made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), and the hon. Members for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), and for East Worthing and Shoreham. There were interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), the hon. Members for Buckingham (John Bercow), for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) and for Castle Point (Bob Spink), and my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin), and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). All of them made important points, and I shall try as best I can in the short time available to deal with as many of them as possible before moving on, if I have time, to the set remarks that I had intended to make.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill raised the matter of money from “Aiming high for disabled children”, the Barnett consequential and the actions of the Scottish Executive in that regard. It is of course absolutely a matter for the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament to determine how much of the money generated from any Barnett consequential is used in any particular way; but in thinking that it is absolutely right for my right hon. Friend to press the matter in the UK Parliament, perhaps I disagree with what some Members have hinted at during the debate. It is absolutely the duty of MPs from all parts of the UK to point out issues, if they think that there is an injustice or that a wrong decision has been made by a local authority, a devolved Administration or another body. The needs of disabled children and their families are the same wherever they are in the UK.
I could not put the matter better, so I shall put it to rest at this point. My hon. Friend has clarified the point that I wanted to make in my comments on the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.
Members raised the issue of patchy performance, and we shall shortly begin a tendering process for a national support body to support authorities with difficulties in implementing short-break services and to support our commitment to parent forums in all areas. For the first time there will be an indicator of parents’ experience of services for their disabled children. Parents will be surveyed locally on what they think. We will expect areas that perform poorly in that context to include the indicator in their local area agreements, stretch themselves and set out clearly how they will improve. There is a mechanism in place to try to do something about patchy performance.
Data collection was mentioned in the debate. Data collection and improving data is a key strand of “Aiming high”. We are setting up a working group with the Department of Health, local authorities and primary care trusts to consider how to improve local data on disabled populations and how they are used. We are also commissioning research on why there is such variation between local authorities in the quality of data, to inform future work and improve the responsiveness of services. The children’s plan sets out a commitment to improve special educational needs data in schools, so there will be some overlap with respect to outcomes for disabled children.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean mentioned Gloucestershire and the financial situation there. He also mentioned the flooding in the region last summer. I visited Gloucestershire after the floods, and was happy to increase the grant from the Department for Children, Schools and Families from £600,000 to £1 million, which I know was welcomed in the county. The hon. Gentleman asked how we would learn the lessons from pathfinder areas such as Gloucestershire in relation to “Aiming high for disabled children”. Pathfinder areas must demonstrate their readiness ahead of receiving funding. That has happened, which is why they have been chosen.
Areas must demonstrate that the intention is to bring about a system change in the way they provide short breaks locally. The national support body will work with local authorities to make that happen, and ensure that best practice is shared and rolled out nationally. Following the pathfinder applications process, Capita is evaluating the information received from the applicants, which will inform the work of the support body in trying to learn the lessons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood—she tells me that one must always remember the Fleetwood bit in references to her constituency—mentioned early intervention and integration. The need for early intervention in our services is a strong theme of the children’s plan, and I know that the Secretary of State is personally committed to it, as is shown by the work that he did on “Aiming high for disabled children”. We are very aware of the need for sustainability in relation to those services. I certainly make a commitment to look at the Select Committee report, as departmental colleagues will also want to do, in relation to disabled children’s issues, and I shall certainly ensure that Ministers look at it. My hon. Friend said that we have rather a lot of balls in the air at the moment; it is an analogy that we do not tend to use in front of the Secretary of State—plate spinning might perhaps be a better image.
On PCT funding, disabled children are a welcome priority in the new NHS operating framework, which was announced recently. As is usual with national health service funding, the additional funding for short breaks is not separately identified, but my colleagues in the Department of Health and Lord Adonis in the Department for Children, Schools and Families have written to all PCTs emphasising the importance that we attach to joint working between local authorities and PCTs on improving short breaks.
Direct payments were mentioned in the debate. We recognise that they are not right for every family or child, and I think that families and hon. Members share that view. Budgets supported by a broker are another way of trying to handle the issue of improving flexibility for disabled children and their families. We are developing a major communication strategy with the Council for Disabled Children to inform parents of the options available to them, both by way of direct payments and the use of a broker. I am keen that there should be opportunities to increase the uptake of disability payments where they are suitable for families and children.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised the issue of speech, language and communications, and he will be very much aware of the review that is being undertaken by the hon. Member for Buckingham to address those questions. The hon. Gentleman will produce an interim report in March and a final report in the summer, which I hope will provide more detailed answers to the questions that have been raised in the debate.
We have had a useful and productive debate. Children are the Government’s highest priority. With health, security and a good education, a child can achieve all that they are capable of, but without those things, they cannot do so. The Government have a duty to remove every barrier to success, particularly for disabled children.